Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Re-reading Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer (1951)

Ten or more years ago I was asked to recommend and review a book for the annual reading list of a group I was in. It was an honor to be asked. And I immediately knew what I wanted to recommend: Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer (1951), which had left a permanent impression on my mind decades earlier. Unfortunately, being preoccupied with other matters, I procrastinated and then forgot to do a write-up. Oh well. Now the head of this group has issued a general call to all members, alumni at this point, to contribute recommendations for a final wrap-up round. Aha, a second chance, and fortunately that old classic is even more timely than before.

Here’s what I sent in — it may be pertinent for some of you as well:

“It’s time to re-read Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951) — especially since our society is evermore rife with tribalism, led by a President who seems modeled out of this book. Hoffer’s complex weaving of pithy insights speaks to a key interest of mine: people's space-time-agency orientations, inthis instance among true believers — their "estrangement from the self," “craving for a new life,” “passionate hatred,” and energized “identification with a collective whole" (space); their "depreciation of the present," “ardent desire for change,” and extravagant “faith in the future” (time); all bolstered by their sense of “access to a source of irresistible power” and “unlimited opportunities" for “feverish action” (agency). Three timely quotes:
• “Should Americans begin to hate foreigners wholeheartedly, it will be an indication that they have lost confidence in their own way of life.” (S. 73)
• “If free enterprise becomes a proselytizing holy cause, it will be a sign that its workability and advantages have ceased to be self-evident.” (S. 88)
• "The quality of ideas seems to play a minor role in mass movement leadership. What counts is the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard of the opinion of others, the singlehanded defiance of the world." (S. 91)”
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Beyond that blurb, here’s what Hoffer notes about his stirring analysis:

• “This book concerns itself chiefly with the active, revivalist phase of mass movements. This phase is dominated by the true believer — the man of fanatical faith who is ready to sacrifice his life for a holy cause”. (Preface)

• “The reader is expected to quarrel with much that is said in this part of the book. He is likely to feel that much has been exaggerated and much ignored. But this is not an authoritative textbook. It is a book of thoughts, and it does not shy away from half-truths so long as they seem to hint at a new approach and help to formulate new questions.” (S. 43)

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Here’s a long string of excerpts that I found impressive as I read the book anew, and which I may want to use in future writings:

• “For men to plunge headlong into an undertaking of vast change, they must be intensely discontented yet not destitute, and they must have the feeling that by the possession of some potent doctrine, infallible leader or some new technique they have access to a source of irresistible power. They must also have an extravagant conception of the prospects and potentialities of the future. Finally, they must be wholly ignorant of the difficulties involved in their vast undertaking.” (S. 6)
• “Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.” (S. 8)
• “The problem of stopping a mass movement is often a matter of substituting one movement for another.” (S. 16)

• “The game of history is usually played by the best and the worst over the heads of the majority in the middle.” (S. 18)

• “A rising mass movement preaches the immediate hope. It is intent on stirring its followers to action, and it is the around-the-corner brand of hope that prompts people to act.” (S. 25)

• “Those who see their lives as spoiled and wasted crave equality and fraternity more than they do freedom.” (S. 28)

• “A rising mass movement attracts and holds a following not by its doctrine and promises but by the refuge it offers from the anxieties, barrenness and meaninglessness of an individual existence.” (S. 34)

• “The milieu most favorable for the rise and propagation of mass movements is one in which a once compact corporate structure is, for one reason or another, in a state of disintegration.” (S. 35)

• “The fiercest fanatics are often selfish people who were forced, by innate shortcomings or external circumstances, to lose faith in their own selves.” (S. 38)

• “There is perhaps no more reliable indicator of a society’s ripeness for a mass movement than the prevalence of unrelieved boredom. In almost all the descriptions of the periods preceding the rise of mass movements there is reference to vast ennui; and in their earliest stages mass movements are more likely to find sympathizers and support among the bored than among the exploited and oppressed.” (S. 41)

• “What ails the frustrated? It is the consciousness of an irremediably blemished self. Their chief desire is to escape that self — and it is this desire which manifests itself in a propensity for united action and self-sacrifice.” (S. 43)

• “Such diverse phenomena as a deprecation of the present, a facility for make-believe, a proneness to hate, a readiness to imitate, credulity, a readiness to attempt the impossible, and many others which crowd the minds of the intensely frustrated are, as we shall see, unifying agents and prompters of recklessness.” (S. 43)

• “The technique of fostering a readiness to fight and to die consists in separating the individual from his flesh-and-blood self — in not allowing him to be his real self. This can be achieved by the thorough assimilation of the individual into a compact collective body…; by endowing him with an imaginary self (make-believe) …; by implanting in him a deprecating attitude toward the present and riveting his interest on things that are not yet …; by interposing a fact-proof screen between him and reality (doctrine) …; by preventing, through the injection of passions, the establishment of a stable equilibrium between the individual and his self (fanaticism) ….” (S. 43)

• “Hence the inevitable shift in emphasis once the movement starts rolling. The present — the original objective — is shoved off the stage and its place taken by posterity — the future. More still: the present is driven back as if it were an unclean thing and lumped with the detested past. The battle line is now drawn between things that are and have been, and the things that are not yet.” (S. 48)

• “It is true of course that the hope released by a vivid visualization of a glorious future is a most potent source of daring and self-forgetting — more potent than the implied deprecation of the present. A mass movement has to center the hearts and minds of its followers on the future even when it is not engaged in a life-and-death struggle with established institutions and privileges.” (S. 49)

• “It is startling to realize how much unbelief is necessary to make belief possible. What we know as blind faith is sustained by innumerable unbeliefs.” (S. 56)

• “An active mass movement rejects the present and centers its interest on the future. It is from this attitude that it derives its strength, for it can proceed recklessly with the present — with the health, wealth and lives of its followers. But it must act as if had already read the book of the future to the last word. ” (S. 58)

• “The fanatic cannot be weaned away from his cause by an appeal to his reason or moral sense. He fears compromise and cannot be persuaded to qualify the certitude and righteousness of his holy cause. But he finds no difficulty in swinging suddenly and wildly from one holy cause to another. He cannot be convinced but only converted.” (S. 61)

• “Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil. Usually the strength of a mass movement is proportionate to the vividness and tangibility of its devil.” (S. 65)

• “We do not usually look for allies when we love. … But we always look for allies when we hate.” (S. 68)

• “Should Americans begin to hate foreigners wholeheartedly, it will be an indication that they have lost confidence in their own way of life.” (S. 73)

• “When we lose our individual independence in the corporateness of a mass movement, we find a new freedom — freedom to hate, bully, lie, torture, murder and betray without shame and remorse.” (S. 77)

• “The truth seems to be that propaganda on its own cannot force its way into unwilling minds; neither can it inculcate something wholly new; nor can it keep people persuaded once they have ceased to believe. It penetrates only into minds already open, and rather than instill opinion it articulates and justifies opinions already present in the minds of its recipients. The gifted propagandist brings to a boil ideas and passions already simmering in the minds of his hearers. He echoes their innermost feelings. Where opinion is not coerced, people can be made to believe only in what they already “know.” (S. 83)

• “If free enterprise becomes a proselytizing holy cause, it will be a sign that its workability and advantages have ceased to be self-evident.” (S. 88)

• "The quality of ideas seems to play a minor role in mass movement leadership. What counts is the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard of the opinion of others, the singlehanded defiance of the world." (S. 91)

• “The frustrated follow a leader less because of their faith that he is leading them to a promised land than because of their immediate feeling that he is leading them away from their unwanted selves. Surrender to a leader is not a means to an end but a fulfillment. Whither they are led is of secondary importance.” (S. 94)

• “All mass movements avail themselves of action as a means of unification. The conflicts a mass movement seeks and incites serve not only to down its enemies but also to strip its followers of their distinct individuality and render them more soluble in the collective medium.” (S. 98)

• “It is the sacred duty of the true believer to be suspicious. He must be constantly on the lookout for saboteurs, spies and traitors.” (S. 100)

• “The exaltation of the true believer does not flow from reserves of strength and wisdom but from a sense of deliverance: he has been delivered from the meaningless burdens of an autonomous existence.” (S. 102)

• “The true believer is eternally incomplete, eternally insecure.” (S. 102)

• “Mass movements do not usually rise until the prevailing order has been discredited. The discrediting is not an automatic result of the blunders and abuses of those in power, but the deliberate work of men of words with a grievance.” (S. 104)

• “To sum up, the militant man of words prepares the ground for the rise of a mass movement: 1) by discrediting prevailing creeds and institutions and detaching from them the allegiance of the people; 2) by indirectly creating a hunger for faith in the hearts of those who cannot live without it, so that when the new faith is preached it finds an eager response among the disillusioned masses; 3) by furnishing the doctrine and the slogans of the new faith; 4) by undermining the convictions of the “better people"— those who can get along without faith—so that when the new fanaticism makes its appearance they are without the capacity to resist it.” (S. 108)

• “A movement is pioneered by men of words, materialized by fanatics and consolidated by men of action.” (S. 113)

• “A movement is pioneered by men of words, materialized by fanatics and consolidated by men of action.” (S. 116)

• “What can be asserted with some plausibility is that in a traditionally free country a Hitler or a Stalin might not find it too difficult to gain power but extremely hard to maintain himself indefinitely.” (S. 121)

• “When the process of renovation has to be realized in short order, mass movements may be indispensable even in small homogeneous societies. The inability to produce a full-fledged mass movement can be, therefore, a grave handicap to a social body.” (S. 125)


fodel said...

Thanks for shining a light on this brilliant and insightful treatise on the nature of mass movements. It has TRUMP written all over it.

I started rereading it in an attempt to understanding my own closet family members who are ardent Trumpsters. Hoffer has been a revelation demystify why they won't respond to ANY discussion challenging Trump, calling out his behavior and actions. Why is there NO appeal to reason?:

Hoffer quotes Bergson: “Strength of faith ... manifests itself not in moving mountains but in not seeing mountains to move.”

I hope your group’s call to members and alumni also turned up Orwell’s 1984, which should be the companion volume to The True Believer. They both belong on the reading list of anyone trying to make sense of what’s happening to us in 2018.

David Ronfeldt said...

All good, welcome points. Many thanks. Yes, "1984" was great insightful work appropriate to our times. Onward.